Written by: John Gatins
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane, John Hawkes, D. B. Sweeney, Mike McGlone, Graham Beckel
Sometimes just showing up can be enough to make a difference. A lesson Hardball tries to instill in the way all of its characters appear in the film. Full of teachable moments for all involved, this small and inspirational film sets out to bring love and affection in an area where it needs it the most and pretty much succeeds in the process.
In some serious gambling debt, Conor (Keanu Reeves) receives the opportunity to pay for it back for coaching a group of inner-city kids in baseball for some pay. While hesitant to connect with the kids, Conor begins to form a bond with them as he learns to be present with the people around him and actually care for more than just what winnings he could get from a potential wager.
Carefully sidestepping the “white savior” trope within its narrative Hardball works as both a fun little sports story and a somewhat riveting drama for the character of Conor as he has plenty to learn in life. He spends most of his days living off the cuff, which has, in turn, put him in a precarious situation where he needs to take what he gets in order to avoid receiving the wrong end of the bat from his bookies. The film switches back and forth between these two dynamics and it strikes a good balance as a result.
The truly heartwarming aspect of the feature comes from Conor leading the group of kids playing baseball. They do not have the best equipment or surroundings to thrive but he needs to figure it out seeing as no one else will take the time to do so. The bond he builds with them warms the heart because the relationships they form never become one-sided as they all get something out of being part of the team but perhaps Conor receives the most out of the bunch. He allows for a safe space for these kids to learn how to play as a team, while he learns how to handle actual responsibility in his life, for once.
Certain aspects of the narrative do not land as precisely as probably expected thematically, but whenever Keanu Reeves stars in a movie, I am willing to overlook some things for the good of one of my favorite actors. In this feature, Keanu operates in between The Matrix and the sequels, which had made him a bonafide action star on top of his other 90s classics. His settling down on this smaller and more intimate movie about connection and trust makes for quite the choice and while his weird acting tendencies show their place here, he puts in a decent enough performance.
The starlets of the feature are the kids, with each of them having a distinct personality and an attribute they bring to the team. From the jokesters to those with the quick temper, each of them makes the job for Conor a bit more difficult but all the more endearing as a result. They represent the search for something productive in a neighborhood offering rough alternatives should the baseball team not work. Their issues do not receive the same level of depth as Conor but plenty can be seen and inferred based on how these kids describe it all. A mix of tragedy and comedy for them, but this also brings a surprise early acting role for a young Michael B. Jordan.
Together these characters create a beautiful little symphony as the boys need someone who can be a constant in their lives and Conor needs to live in reality and build a connection with something or someone to ground him. It all comes as part of the process as these two groupings come together for the good of them all. Nothing else around them matters when they step on the diamond and have some fun as a group playing a sport they enjoy. Endearing and heartwarming in the way it captures its story, Hardball provides plenty to love. A surprise early acting appearance from Michael B. Jordan? Sure. A romantic throughline for Keanu Reeves and Diane Lane? Bring it on. Another baseball movie meant to make me emotional? You bet on it, buster. Definitely, something to recommend.